It’s the stat that no NFL fan wants to hear, but one that’s impossible to ignore if your favorite team drops its first two games: Since 1990, only 31 of the 270 teams that have started 0-2 have made the playoffs. That’s around 11 percent, but it might as well be 0.11 percent given how it feels to end a long offseason with back-to-back defeats. You can almost forget what it’s like to win.
With expanded 17-game schedules, the dreaded 0-2 start isn’t nearly as daunting as it once was. There’s more time to make up ground, and not every 0-2 hole should induce an overwhelming sense of panic—especially for the good teams that are just off to an uneven start. But for others, the first two weeks may have provided enough evidence that the 2023 season will be one to forget.
Through Sunday’s games, we have eight 0-2 teams. Let’s look at each of them and figure out which are likely to recover and which should be pounding the panic button. This is the NFL Panic Index.
Week 1: Browns 24, Bengals 3
Week 2: Ravens 27, Bengals 24
The Bengals have been here before. Just last season, Cincinnati started out 0-2 and Joe Burrow got off to a dreadful start, throwing four interceptions and taking 13 sacks. This year, Burrow—who recently signed a five-year, $275 million extension—has thrown only one pick and has been sacked just three times. But while the numbers are better, the vibes couldn’t be worse after the 26-year-old limped off the field following a 27-24 loss to the Ravens on Sunday.
Burrow said after the game that on Cincinnati’s second-to-last snap, he re-aggravated the calf injury he suffered in training camp. Had that play never happened, the tone of this write-up would have been more positive. Burrow found a rhythm in the second half of the game, even taking off on his first scramble of the season in the third quarter. And while this didn’t look like the Bengals offense we’re accustomed to, it at least looked viable. Burrow seemed more like himself.
He was far more efficient than in Week 1:
Burrow Finished Strong in Week 2 (Via TruMedia)
|Week 2, first half||11||11||3.2||-0.48||27.3%|
|Week 2, second half||32||30||5.8||0.22||46.9%|
And he produced a more ambitious passing map:
Burrow’s second-half performance—if you just ignore the brutal red-zone interception—would have made the 0-2 start a bit more palatable … but then those last two plays happened. Burrow’s limited mobility may not seem like a big deal since he’s at his best in the pocket, but mobility within the pocket is a key ingredient to that success. And over the two previous seasons, only Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Justin Herbert generated more expected points added on throws made outside the pocket, per TruMedia. Movement is an underrated aspect of Burrow’s skill set, and if that’s limited, he’ll have to make adjustments.
The timing of Burrow’s setback could not be worse, with a tricky stretch of games coming up against the Rams (home), Titans (away), and Seahawks (home). Oh, and then the Bengals face the 49ers and Bills back-to-back. Those games will be tough even in the unlikely event that Burrow’s calf heals by then. And two weeks after those tests, Cincinnati will travel to Baltimore for a rematch with the team that just sent it to 0-2. Games against the Cardinals and Texans look like the only sure wins for the next two months.
The Bengals have been a resilient team for the last two years, but it feels different this time.
Panic Index: 9/10
Los Angeles Chargers
Week 1: Dolphins 36, Chargers 34
Week 2: Titans 27, Chargers 24
Does Brandon Staley sound like a coach who’s panicking after an 0-2 start?
"We just lost a game in overtime Jeff so how do you think the mood is?" Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley after the Titans overtime win. pic.twitter.com/SGW1AZfD3x— Justin McFarland (@ThisJustinTv) September 18, 2023
OK, yeah, that’s exactly what he sounded like after the Chargers blew a second fourth-quarter lead in as many weeks, losing to Tennessee 27-24 in overtime. Storming out of a postgame presser is a sure sign that a coach is feeling the heat. And Sunday’s loss, which featured several strategic gaffes by the third-year coach, will surely raise the temperature of his seat. Staley punted on fourth-and-short near midfield on two occasions when the numbers suggested the Chargers should’ve kept their offense on the field. And that’s just the latest proof that Staley’s commitment to analytically backed decision-making has been weakened. In his press conference, he pushed back against the notion that blowing a 27-point lead to Jacksonville in the playoffs last season is hanging over the locker room, but it certainly still seems to be in the back of his mind. Staley is coaching not to lose.
Staley also made a key strategic blunder in overtime. With Tennessee facing a third-and-1 near midfield and needing only a field goal to win the game, Derrick Henry was inexplicably taken off the field. But before the snap, Staley called a timeout to think over his play call, allowing the Titans to bring their best player back out. Henry muscled his way to a first down, and a few plays later, Tennessee lined up for the game-winning kick.
Those weren’t the only signs of a poorly coached team. Three personal foul penalties extended eventual scoring drives for Tennessee, and a bad challenge of a first-down spot cost the Chargers a timeout in the second half. In year three, Staley is regressing as a head coach.
There is some good news for the Chargers: Kellen Moore’s appointment as offensive coordinator has energized the offense, and Justin Herbert is back to performing like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL—and putting his big arm to good use. Through two games, he ranks sixth in both EPA per dropback and average depth of target after ranking 13th and 31st, respectively, in those two metrics last season, per TruMedia.
But while getting Herbert back to producing at a high level was the easiest path to job security for Staley, it might work against him if losses continue to pile up. Joe Lombardi is no longer around to serve as a scapegoat for the team issues, and Staley has never been more vulnerable.
Panic Index: 8/10
Week 1: Buccaneers 20, Vikings 17
Week 2: Eagles 34, Vikings 28
I have to give it to the football gods. Turning 2022’s luckiest team into 2023’s unluckiest team is a perfect bit. And throwing Kirk Cousins into the mix? A masterful touch.
It’s not a surprise that regression has hit the Vikings hard this season after they ran the table in 11 one-possession games a year ago. But nobody was expecting it to hit this hard. Minnesota is already 0-2 in one-score games to start the season, and it has lost six fumbles.
The Vikings outplayed the Eagles on Thursday night, but they lost the turnover battle by three, and one of those turnovers cost the Vikings six points when Justin Jefferson fumbled the ball through the end zone while reaching out for the pylon. The Vikings ended up losing by six. In Week 1, Minnesota outgained Tampa Bay by more than 100 yards, but two Cousins fumbles and poorly timed penalties were enough to push the Bucs over the finish line in a three-point win.
The Vikings aren’t going to win 13 games again, but that doesn’t mean this team isn’t better than it was a season ago. The defense looks more formidable, with new coordinator Brian Flores employing an attacking scheme that has improved the pass defense. Minnesota has given up 54 points in two games, but that number has been inflated by the offense’s turnover problem. The passing game isn’t nearly as Jefferson-centric, with Jordan Addison emerging as a solid option early in his rookie season. He’s already hauled in two long touchdowns from Cousins. That should offer Jefferson protection against double-teams and extra attention from deep safeties.
One would think that the Vikings will eventually stop fumbling the football this much. Just not doing so at a historic rate would be enough to get last year’s NFC North champs back in the race. After all, Week 2 losses by the Lions and Packers kept the Vikings within a game of first place in the division.
Panic Index: 4/10
New England Patriots
Week 1: Eagles 25, Patriots 20
Week 2: Dolphins 24, Patriots 17
The Patriots have now wasted two valiant efforts from the defense and gutsy performances by Mac Jones in losses to favored opponents. In Week 1, New England outplayed Philadelphia but couldn’t overcome two early turnovers. Then on Sunday night, the Patriots couldn’t finish enough drives to take the Dolphins to overtime, even though they looked as if they belonged with one of the AFC’s top teams.
If you can ignore the 0-2 record, this is the best the Patriots have looked starting a season since Tom Brady’s last in New England. The defense is faster than it was a year ago, when it finished as a top-10 unit in most metrics. The offense looks professionally coordinated, thanks to the return of Bill O’Brien as offensive coordinator. There have been rough patches for that unit, but O’Brien and Jones have made the proper adjustments in both games to improve in the second half. That wasn’t happening under the watch of Matt Patricia and Joe Judge.
These two games have also given us some evidence that Bill Belichick still has his fastball when it comes to designing a defensive game plan. In Week 1, he threw zero blitzes and coverage disguises at Jalen Hurts and held him to an inefficient day. On Sunday night, his initial game plan, which featured a college-inspired three-high safety structure, was a dud. But Belichick and his staff quickly adjusted, shifting from a zone-based coverage plan to a more man-heavy approach. The changes worked, and Miami’s offense slowed down just enough to get the Patriots back in the game. Ultimately, New England didn’t have enough talent to break through and grab the lead, which has become a common occurrence for this team in the last few years. But this coaching staff showed it can still be an asset and should keep this team competitive all season.
Panic Index: 6/10
Week 1: Raiders 17, Broncos 16
Week 2: Commanders 35, Broncos 33
The rationale behind any Broncos offseason optimism was sound: The franchise was swapping out a disaster of a coach for one of the most respected offensive minds of this generation. The early years of the Sean Payton era were always going to be difficult, with Russell Wilson’s bloated contract weighing down the rebuilding effort, but it seemed like it couldn’t get worse than Nathaniel Hackett.
Through two weeks, it has been worse. Record-wise, at least. Denver fell to 0-2 after blowing a 21-3 lead to Washington on Sunday. At this time last year, Hackett had the Broncos sitting at 1-1. Hackett’s loss came on the road to an eventual playoff team in Seattle; Payton’s two losses have come at home to Las Vegas and Washington. Denver was nearly spared from being included on this list after getting one of the more fortuitous bounces in NFL history:
RUSSELL WILSON! DENVER BRONCOS! PLAY OF THE YEAR pic.twitter.com/vpd4wOYO7N— Jomboy Media (@JomboyMedia) September 17, 2023
Then the refs ignored a potential pass interference penalty against Washington on the ensuing two-point try, and the meltdown was complete.
Things looked promising for Denver in the first half on Sunday. Payton had Wilson cooking, with the quarterback dropping one of his trademark moon balls out of the sky and right into the path of rookie receiver Marvin Mims.
Wilson found Mims on another lofted deep ball later in the game, and made a few plays on the move. He even threw it back to 2014 with a zone-read keeper that went for 12 yards on third-and-short.
But Washington’s defense got its shit together in the second half. The secondary stopped busting coverages, the pass rush started winning, and the defensive line scared Wilson somewhere along the way. That was the end of Wilson’s mini-revival. After completing 75 percent of his passes in the first half, that rate fell to 50 percent over the last 30 minutes. His yards-per-dropback average dropped by nearly 10 yards. And his average time to throw jumped to 3.55 seconds, contributing to a pressure rate of 61.3 percent in the second half, according to TruMedia.
But even at his worst, this season’s version of Wilson looks better than last year’s. Through two weeks, he ranks 11th in EPA per dropback and QBR. The Broncos have scored six touchdowns—they found the end zone twice over the first two games of 2022. And after getting booed in their home opener last season, Denver’s offense didn’t hear boos until the second home game this season. That’s progress!
The time to panic was probably a year ago, when it became apparent that the Wilson trade wouldn’t work out as the Broncos had hoped. Expectations have been adjusted. If Payton can just prove that he still has the goods as a play caller, Denver will go into the offseason feeling a lot better about its future. So far, so good.
Panic Index: 5/10
Week 1: Packers 38, Bears 20
Week 2: Buccaneers 27, Bears 17
As far as I can tell, there are two camps in the Bears fan base: Those who have made a deep emotional investment in the idea that Justin Fields can be good, and those who are more skeptical about his long-term future as Chicago’s starter. If you belong to that first group, now’s a good time to start panicking.
Fields has clearly regressed as a passer this year. He’s not processing any quicker in his second year in Luke Getsy’s offense, and his accuracy hasn’t meaningfully improved. Plus, after a busy offseason for GM Ryan Poles, the team looks largely the same—just a little more expensive. Jordan Love and Baker Mayfield have gashed the supposedly upgraded defense in back-to-back weeks. The coaching staff, now in its second year, looks like it’s in over its head. And this is the play that sealed Sunday’s 27-17 loss to Tampa Bay:
The only way that could have been worse is if Fields had made the same mistake last year and vowed never to repeat it in his career. But there’s no way …
Justin Fields on his pick 6 on a screen in the 4th Q: “I can assure you that will never happen again for the rest of my career.”— Courtney Cronin (@CourtneyRCronin) November 13, 2022
The Fields bandwagon is down unfathomably bad, and as we approach the end of his trial period as the franchise’s centerpiece, it may be in the Bears’ best interest to give up on the 2020 first-round pick sooner rather than later. Chicago owns two first-round picks in the 2024 NFL draft, and there are two blue-chip talents likely to be at the top of the board in Caleb Williams and Drake Maye. If Poles decides he wants off the Fields roller coaster, the transition should be smooth. He didn’t draft Fields, so it’s unlikely that ownership will hold him wholly responsible for this season if it continues on its current trajectory.
Panic Index: 5/10
Week 1: Ravens 25, Texans 9
Week 2: Colts 31, Texans 20
The Texans are 0-2 and don’t own their first-round pick next season. DeMeco Ryans, whose work as a defensive coordinator earned him the head-coaching job, just watched his defense get picked apart by a 21-year-old rookie and Gardner Minshew. After a 31-20 home loss to the Colts on Sunday, only the Giants and Bears have a worse point differential through two games.
Houston is off to an objectively bad start, but before you get to worrying, watch this:
CJ Stroud EPA/dropback splits through Week 2 (via TruMedia):— Austin Gayle (@austingayle_) September 18, 2023
Clean: .50 (2nd)
Under Pressure: -.81 (32nd)
The OL is bad. Run game ranks dead last in yards before contact, and he's under pressure 42% of dropbacks. But he's managing clean pockets very well. pic.twitter.com/YLFxRU4u7o
That’s rookie C.J. Stroud casually throwing a no-look pass into a tight window downfield well before his receiver comes open. That kind of a throw requires arm strength, accuracy, a lot of anticipation, and a little creativity to keep the linebackers out of the throwing window. Stroud was criticized during the predraft process for not making a lot of plays out of structure at Ohio State, but playing in Houston’s overmatched offense has forced him to ad-lib more, and he’s looked comfortable doing it against two of the faster defenses in the league.
Houston will have to put more talent around Stroud before his numbers can improve, but this is as good a start as the Texans could have reasonably expected. While dealing with the seventh-highest pressure rate in the league, according to TruMedia, Stroud hasn’t thrown an interception. His 384 passing yards against the Colts were only 49 away from the single-game rookie record held by Andrew Luck. And he’s done most of this while playing from behind, meaning defenses could throw all types of junk at him. Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald threw curveball after curveball at Stroud in his NFL debut, and the rookie eventually settled in and held his own. We also saw marked improvement from him in the second half against Indy.
It’s still early, but Stroud looks comfortable in an NFL pocket. His arm looks strong, he’s outrunning pro pass rushers, and he’s learning quickly from mistakes. As bleak as the short-term outlook for Houston may be, the long-term outlook at quarterback is awfully bright.
Panic Index: 2/10
Week 1: Commanders 20, Cardinals 16
Week 2: Giants 31, Cardinals 28
If Cardinals fans need some cheering up after watching their team lose two competitive games back-to-back, here’s something to help them forget the first loss to Washington:
And here’s something that will make them forget about blowing a 28-7 second-half lead to the Giants:
That’s the light at the end of the tunnel. But can we also acknowledge that, so far, the tunnel hasn’t been nearly as dark as expected? Don’t get me wrong, this Cardinals team is bad, but it doesn’t play like a team that realizes it’s bad. I’m getting 2021 Lions vibes from Arizona through two weeks. They may stink, but at least opposing teams will have to put up with their stench for 60 minutes every week.
Panic Index: 0/10